A Rohnert Park man who led Arkansas law enforcement on a statewide manhunt last month has pleaded not guilty to charges of aggravated assault stemming from an April 1 incident with Saline County Sheriff's deputies.

A lawyer for Dennis Franklin Hunter, 40, entered the plea Tuesday in Saline County. Hunter said Thursday he did not have to appear for Tuesday's proceedings but declined to comment further.

The deputies were dispatched to the Saline County Airport around 5:50 p.m. April 1, after receiving a call from the Department of Homeland Security requesting Hunter's detainment, according to court documents.

Court documents also state DHS had been tracking the private aircraft, a 2001 Cirrus, because agency officials believed drugs were possibly on board. Homeland Security is conducting an investigation into Hunter's activities, DHS spokesman Bryan Cox confirmed Thursday.

When deputies approached Hunter, he jumped in his plane and prepared for takeoff. Deputies ordered Hunter to leave the cockpit, but he instead hit the engine full throttle, forcing one deputy to jump backward to keep from being struck by the plane, court documents say.

The incident sparked a statewide manhunt involving DHS, Arkansas State Police, U.S. Fish & Wildlife, the Tri-County Drug Taskforce and Jefferson County Sheriff's deputies. Hunter abandoned the plane on a rural Arkansas County road near Little Rock.

Arkansas County Sheriff Allen Cheek said there was confusion surrounding Hunter's flight time, including a radio call that went out saying the plane was stolen. Cheek believes this was a misunderstanding of a Federal Aviation Administration alert that the plane had gone off the radar, and noted Hunter's plane's transponder was turned off.

A special crew had to be called into dismantle the plane, an operation that cost his department $5,500, said Cheek.

The FAA also is conducting an investigation into the incident, said Lynn Lunsford of the FAA's southwest region.

"We'll be looking at this from an aviation standpoint and his privileges as a pilot," said Lunsford. "If he violated any regulations then he could face enforcement from us."

In an interview with The Press Democrat the weekend following his arrest, Hunter said it was possible Homeland Security officials wanted him questioned because his plane is out of compliance with a safety regulation and therefore was not properly registered.

After four years on the run, Hunter was arrested in 2002 for operating one of the largest indoor marijuana plantations in Humboldt County history. In 2005, he was sentenced to 6? years in a federal prison over the 1998 bust, which included the discovery of 12,000 plants on his Eureka property.

Hunter now owns a Santa Rosa-based company called GeoPot. The company designs and sells fabric pots and planter boxes.

A Saline County district court judge ordered Hunter to appear in court July 15.

You can reach Staff Writer Melody Karpinski at 521-5205 or melody.karpinski@pressdemocrat.com.